Get all the answers to your questions: from understanding what the spine actually does, to learning how intervertebral discs function and whether running is actually bad for your back.
What are the functions of the spine?
In addition to protecting the spinal cord and stabilizing the torso, the spine also ensures the torso's mobility thanks to its particular structural characteristics, such as the vertebrae articulated between one another, and the intervertebral discs that allow for mobility.
What are the characteristics of the spine?
The spine is made up of 34-35 vertebrae, which are divided into the following categories: cervical (7 vertebrae), thoracic (12 vertebrae), lumbar (5 vertebrae), sacral (5 vertebrae), and coccyx (4-5 vertebrae). Each vertebra is connected to the ones above and below it by an apophyseal joint, and is separated from them by an intervertebral disc. Each vertebra forms a canal, called the spinal canal, through which the spinal cord passes.
All this is to ensure both the stability and mobility of the torso. Each vertebra has certain structures that serve various muscles and ligaments. The spine has four physiological curves, the dorsal and sacral kyphosis, and the lumbar and cervical lordosis. If these curves are accentuated due to bad posture or muscle imbalances, abnormal curves are formed that modify the relationships between the various structures, thus resulting in a different distribution of the compressive force, which is bad for the back.
What is an intervertebral disc?
An intervertebral disc is the structure of connective tissue located between two vertebrae, with the exception of the first two cervical vertebrae, which are directly connected to one another. The inner portion of the disc consists of a nucleus (the nucleus pulpous), which has the appearance of a gelatinous substance. The core is surrounded by a fibrous ring, which is made up of connective tissue fibers arranged to form concentric rings. The fibers provide extra protection for the nucleus pulpous, and improve the spine’s stress resistance. The intervertebral disc is separated from the vertebra by a cartilage plate.
The intervertebral discs facilitate the spine's mobility, while at the same time protecting it by acting as a sort of bearing for cushioning and absorbing shocks. The intervertebral discs can deteriorate due to wear and aging. The nucleus pulpous, which is well-hydrated in childhood and adulthood, gradually becomes thinner after the age of 50, thus reducing shock absorption. The fibrous ring is therefore subjected to additional stress and can easily break, while the cartilage plate is gradually replaced by bone tissue.
What are the risk factors for back pain?
There are numerous risk factors that can contribute to back pain. With the exception of certain cases like lumbago, in which the stabbing pain is due to an incorrect movement when lifting a heavy load and tends to disappear within a few days, back pain is rarely caused by a single factor.
Since a weak musculoskeletal structure, a sedentary lifestyle, and poor physical fitness are all risk factors for back pain, it is recommended to strengthen the muscles by keeping active. Being overweight is also a risk factor, as it places greater stress on the joints and can cause the individual vertebrae to become poorly aligned, thus resulting in bad posture, which in turn puts even more pressure on the spine. Smoking is a risk factor as well, specifically for the health of the intervertebral discs, since smoking reduces the oxygen supply to the spinal tissues.
Is there a genetic predisposition for back pain?
Certain congenital deformities can predispose an individual to develop diseases that can lead to back pain. These are particularly linked to alterations in specific anatomical structures, such as a narrow vertebral canal, or a family history of osteoarthritis.
Why is exercise important for preventing back pain?
Exercise is important for preventing back pain because it tones the muscles and keeps them strong and elastic, thus allowing them to better respond to stress and trauma. With physical activity, there is an improvement in the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the core of the intervertebral discs.
Which sports are best for preventing back pain?
There actually aren't any specific sports for preventing back pain. The important thing is to be active, to exercise regularly, and to avoid a sedentary lifestyle. All you need to do is strengthen your muscles enough to keep them well toned and balanced.
Is running bad for your back?
Due to the continuous impact with the ground, which affects the spine, many people tend to think that running is bad for your back. Nevertheless, it has been shown that with proper preparation, it is possible to run regularly without a high risk of developing back pain. And this applies to almost every sport.
Is swimming the best way to ensure a healthy back?
Contrary to popular belief, swimming is not good for preventing back pain or for treating lower back pain. Even if we are able to swim normally with back pain due to the reduced force of gravity, the fact remains that the back needs to be strengthened, and swimming alone does not allow it to get used to the stress caused by gravity. Therefore, while swimming is good for physical fitness, it’s not the best way to prevent back pain.